The Failure of Forensic Science Reform in Arizona

By Hammond, Larry A. | Judicature, May/June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Failure of Forensic Science Reform in Arizona


Hammond, Larry A., Judicature


Despite a promising environment, the effort to implement the National Academy of Sciences forensic report never got off the ground.

Last August I thought that Arizona would be among the first to embrace the lessons of the Report issued by the National Academy of Sciences only a few months earlier. Arizona was about to be one of the first to embark on a partnership between the courts and the forensic science community to show that there really was "a path forward."

The idea was simple. We would ask the Arizona Supreme Court to establish a Commission or Task Force to look at the NAS Report in the context of a broad range of possible criminal justice and forensic science improvements. The Commission would have representatives from all points of the compass. Our Crime labs, forensic experts, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense lawyers, academicians, and victim advocates would be represented. The judiciary would establish the Commission, but views from ever)' quarter would be solicited. The end product of the Commission's work would be recommendations for criminal rule changes, legislation, and other improvements that could make Arizona an innovative leader in forensic science in our criminal courts.

Sadly, some time between August, 2009 and the end of the year, this idea evaporated. The collapse of this idea invites three questions: (1) why did anyone think this plan would succeed; (2) why did it not; and (3) what lessons can we learn from Arizona's experience. Let me begin with the reasons that led many in Arizona to think that this collaboration would flower.

Reasons for optimism

The National Academy's Report was published in February, 20Ö9. It was the culmination of more than two years of hearings. Arizona seemed ripe to become a place where the Report would be received with enthusiasm. The Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University was one of those institutions where the report was sure to generate close attention. That law school is home to the Arizona Justice Project - the fifth oldest innocence project in America. The law school had just created a new clinic to look at post-conviction problems that may have led to wrongful convictions - problems that could either be aided by forensic science or could reveal areas in which forensic expert testimony might have Jed to error in the past. Apart from its innocence project associations, the law school also boasted a well respected Law, Science and Technolog)' program that had been deeply engaged in DNA work and in forensic science reform.

Recent developments at the law school and in Arizona provided another good reason to be confident that there would be a favorable and collaboration-minded response to the NAS Report. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) had just the year before awarded $1 .3 million to die state for a unique joint undertaking by the attorney general, our Department of Public Safety forensic laboratories, and the Arizona Justice Project to undertake a systematic search for all homicide or sexual assault convictions in which DNA testing not available at the time of trial might prove innocence today. Arizona might become the first state to be able to claim that it had attempted a complete canvassing of all potential DNA-provable exonerations.

The collaboration required to conceive of the grant idea, and to bring it into existence, was unprecedented. Administered and guided by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the project was well underway by February, 2009, and serious law enforcement-defense community cooperation had begun to be a reality. For the first time in Arizona history, representatives of the Arizona attorney general and our Justice Project were joindy making presentations on DNA at prisons throughout the state.

The law school also had a new dean, Paul Schiff Berman. He replaced a dean who had exhibited an abiding interest in forensic science, and he was certain to share some of that same passion.

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